Defective firearm bill pits Dingell v. Dingell

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell is pushing legislation that would reverse a decades-old prohibition backed by her legendary husband that keeps the federal government from forcing defective guns off the market.

Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat in her second term, wants to give the Consumer Safety Product Commission the power to warn the public about defective firearms and ammunition and issue recalls if necessary.

No federal entity has the authority to do so today, in part because of the efforts of now-retired Rep. John Dingell, a gun rights supporter and former board member of the National Rifle Association who spent 58 years in Congress.

On Wednesday, Debbie Dingell introduced legislation to give the Consumer Safety Product Commission that power.

“If someone’s gun isn’t working right, (the commission) should be able to recall it,” said Debbie Dingell, who co-chairs a bipartisan House working group on gun violence.

“And I take a personal responsibility because of the history on it. It’s time to change that law.”

She has acknowledged that guns are an issue on which she and her husband have “strongly disagreed.” She went home to Michigan last month and told John she would be introducing a bill to “correct” what he did more than 40 years ago.

“And he didn’t change the locks,” she joked to The Detroit News on Monday. “His actual comment was, ‘Times have changed.’”

Her measure could face opposition from the NRA, which fought attempts to give the commission firearms authority when the proposal was before Congress in the mid-1970s. The industry has long operated without federal oversight.

An organization called the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute sets weapons industry standards standards for safety and quality, but compliance is voluntary.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group, declined to comment on Dingell’s legislation because it hadn’t seen the bill text, spokesman Michael Bazinet said.

In the early 1970s, John Dingell was among the lawmakers who ensured the 1972 Consumer Product Safety Act, which created the commission, explicitly exempted firearms from its jurisdiction.

The Democrat later objected in 1975 when lawmakers tried to pass a measure to give the commission limited authority to require safety labeling on guns and ammunition and to set regulations to prevent the sale of defective guns or ammunition.

That measure was sponsored by an Illinois Republican, as well as Detroit Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr.

At the time, John Dingell called it “outrageous,” deriding the amendment as a “back-door” method for enacting gun control. He and other colleagues warned of an unelected bureaucratic panel regulating firearms and potentially deciding to ban them altogether.

“The amendment gives CPSC the right to test every firearm and every round of ammunition and to issue all manner of regulations, harassing the firearms manufacturers, harassing sportsmen, harassing licensed firearms dealers, and generally getting their nose into things that Congress said they should not get their nose into when we set up the Consumer Safety Product Commission,” Dingell said during debate on the House floor in July 1975.

Illinois Rep. Robert McClory disagreed that his measure amounted to indirect gun control. He pointed out that ATF largely focused on firearms licensing and has no authority related to the defective nature or labeling of firearms and ammunition.

“I should think this would be supported by the gun lovers, myself,” McClory said during the debate.

The area in which the ATF has the most extensive control – explosives – the bureau is explicitly prohibited from regulating small arms and ammunition, argued Conyers, who then chaired the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime.

“What we are doing now ... is leaving it up to local prosecutors to prosecute people who may or may not comply with the provisions. I do not think that it’s adequate,” Conyers said during the debate.

The amendment ultimately failed by a vote of 339-80. Lawmakers haven’t taken up the proposal in the decades since, experts say.

“The idea of regulating firearms as a consumer product has been a dead letter since that legislation was enacted in the ’70s,” said Kristin Anne Goss, a political scientist at Duke University and the author of “Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America.”

“Appealing that has never been a serious agenda item since then.”

Instead, consumer groups and plaintiffs lawyers pursued class-action lawsuits against gun manufacturers to try to force allegedly defective weapons from the market.

It’s unclear how many accidental deaths in the United States are caused by defective or malfunctioning guns because the data isn’t tracked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tallied 495 unintentional firearm-related deaths in 2016, the most recent data available.

Legislation introduced in Congress in the last 30 years proposed vesting the ATF with consumer protection authority regarding the design, manufacture and distribution of firearms. The bills died in committee.

At least one member of the Consumer Safety Product Commission , Marietta Robinson, believes its jurisdiction should “logically include guns and ammunition,” as its mission is to protect consumers from unreasonable risk of injury or death from a consumer product.

“Guns lacking appropriate safety mechanisms pose just such a risk,” she wrote on her blog, lamenting that the body is “powerless” to make them safer.

The Consumer Federation of America Foundation has opposed giving authority to the commission because of its lack of experience with the firearms industry. It also worried that regulating guns would divert resources from the tens of thousands of other products that the commission regulates.

Jon Vernick, a public health lawyer and co-director of the John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy Research, says a benefit of giving the ATF consumer protection authority is the bureau has more institutional knowledge about the weapons; however, it also has the perception of being “friendly” with the industry.

Vernick supports empowering the commission, which specializes in consumer protection, to recall defective products. It operates independent of a cabinet-level department subject to political pressure – unlike the ATF, he said.

“They are a consumer product — they are manufactured, marketed and sold and — depending on which survey you look at — about a third of U.S. households have at least one gun in them,” Vernick said.

“For there to be no agency that can make sure those guns are reasonably safe and then recall them if the gun has a manufacturing defect – it’s just unbelievable.”